Practical ideas on how (and why) to travel with only a carry on

Picture this. You land at the airport of a new country, travel weary but thrilled to finally have arrived. After waiting in the toilet queue for 20 minutes you make your way to baggage collection and wait another 20 minutes for the conveyor to start up. You wait and wait.. and wait. The area is emptying out as people shuffle off with their bags and run into each others’ shins with misaligned trolleys. But where are your bags? Surprise. They’ve ended up in Uzbekistan and you are in Greece. If you luck out and your bags are there you pile them on top of each other, whip out the trusty handle and roll on through to security with your heavy load. You may very well have to empty the entire contents of your bags before re-packing it all again. You make it through security after 40 minutes, and first stop before heading to your motel is a cafe for a quick bite as you are STARVING. But there are 74 steps to get to the front door, and by the time you reach it you have muppet-arms. Not to mention where on earth you are going to leave your bags should you need to use the tiny restroom there.

Meanwhile the dude sitting next to you on the plane had just a carry on. He heads straight for security ahead of the rush and is directed through the express lane. (Not available in all airports.) He makes a declaration in place of screening and potentially saves having to unpack his bag. He grabs a bite at the cafe down the road, uses the loo and is off on his adventure while you are still in the airport toilet queue.

But how on earth can you fit everything you need in a carry on for 3 weeks or even.. 3 months?? It is do-able, and if you’re prepared to forgo the hair dryer and heels, it may just be worth your while.

Practical ideas on how (and why) to travel with only a carry on.

The first thing to decide is what kind of bag you will take. There is a lot to consider- weight, strength, functionality, storage. A soft-ish bag as opposed to the hard shell type are easier to fit under the seat in front, easy access and can be carried on your back. Airlines are a little more relaxed with this style when it comes to size restrictions, as it can be hard to measure the exact dimensions.

There are so many styles out there but probably the most important thing to look for is a strong bag with easy access. It might have a zipper which goes right up each side and across the top, or (my preferance) one with a zip top AND bottom. It is SO FRUSTRATING when you realize the pair of socks you need are at the very bottom of your bag and you have to haul every thing else out and put it all back in again just to get to them. A bag with good access is worth it’s weight in chocolate and makes finding things much quicker and easier.

Read 8 Essential items to pack when adventure travelling!

When purchasing a new carry on check the zipper quality. (Murphy’s law says that a nasty, flimzy zip will give out right as you are running for a train, as you madly try to prevent all of your belongings falling out on the ground.)

While they can be pretty to look at, fancy bags with excessive buttons, buckles, straps and clips can be a pain. They get caught in seats, clothing and everywhere else and can tear a hole in your bag. Do however look for a bag that has one set of loops, ties or elastics to tie your jacket to. I generally carry one warm jumper or jacket (depending on my destination) through security and it doesn’t count as carry on if you are ‘wearing’ it. This saves a tonne of space in your bag. You can use it as a pillow on the plane and tie it to your bag when not in use.

This Osprey ozone 46L ultralight carry-on is a fantastic bag. It is lightweight and durable with excellent access to your gear and will stand the test of time. If you have some spare cash, then this 28L North Face refractor duffle pack is the beez kneez of carry-on backpacks, and will have your fellow adventure travelers ON their knees and green with envy. It features a ‘clam-shell’ design, zipping open right around for the ultimate access to your gear. It is made of extra strong polyester and nylon and has a central internal mesh pockets for hiding sensitive documents, spare cash etc.

Your carry on will need to fit within the airlines’ size guidelines, and they all differ. Check with your airline before you leave as you don’t want a nasty surprise before you even board the plane. Checked baggage prices at the airport can be astronomical and defeats the purpose of having packed a carry-on. Seatguru.com also has information on baggage policies for each airline. (Click the link and scroll down to find your airline)

So you have your bag sorted. Now how to fit everything in it?

A nifty little Army trick I learned was to ROLL your clothes. Rolling them tightly takes up way less space than folding and they are far easier to pack as well. Your clothes come out with less wrinkles and it is easier to see what you have. Also roll towels, scarves and anything else you can!

It can be useful to roll clothing sets, such as a t.shirt and matching pants for a day. This works well if each ‘roll’ is not too bulky, otherwise they can be hard to pack. If you are taking a towel, one designed specifically for travel such as this Sea to summit tec towel is a great option and rolls up to not much bigger than your fist. A scarf can also be used as a towel and is perfect for beach holidays.

Read 8 essential items to pack when adventure travelling!

The next thing is to place your clothes in clear zip-loc bags. There are a few reasons for this, the main one being to waterproof them. I learned this the hard way. You never know when you’ll get caught in a tropical downpour, or the floor of the venga bus you are on has water (or worse) on the floor that you didn’t notice.

Zip-loc bags are also fantastic if you do have to go through a ‘pack explosion’ at security. Simply pull the bags out and open only the ones they request you to. It’s easy for them to see at a glance what you have and may save you quite a bit of time.

Bagging your gear makes it super-easy for you to find what you need easily as well. I generally have 3-4 zip-loc bags in my pack, depending on the weather where I am going. One for long pants and thermals, one for singlets/t.shirts/long sleeve t.shirts and a thermal top. Another for underwear/socks/headbands and such. And another for your toiletries, which leads me to the next topic..

What to take in your ‘girlie bag’?

If you are serious about travelling lightly, this is where you have to get ruthless. I used to take so much stuff, even though I’m a complete tomboy. This is what I take now:

-A folding travel hairbrush with a spare elastic around the handle. It has a mirror in the handle and folds up quite small.

Organic jojoba oil. This is a fantastic gentle (non greasy) moisturiser, intensive hair treatment, makeup remover and a natural lubricant. A tiny bit goes a long way.

-Deodorant. Lime essential oil mixed with a good quality carrier oil (hello, jojoba!) makes a very effective natural deodorant, it smells lovely and takes up very little space.

Plain organic body wash OR organic shampoo. These are basically the same thing and you can get them at any health food store. Use this also as laundry liquid. (Don’t buy castille soap. It is heavily marketed as ‘natural’ but contains lye and is irritating to the skin.) Add a few drops of your favourite essential oil blend for a fresh sweet scent. *Tip* In high mosquito-and-other-bug areas, mix a few drops of citronella oil in your body/hair/clothes wash to help deter the pesky things.

-Toothbrush and paste. Have you ever been annoyed at how much room a toothbrush takes up? Your toiletry bag would be so much more compact if it weren’t for that! I now cut the handle down and call it my ‘sawn-off toothbrush’ lol. Maybe that’s a bit extreme but it makes me a happy camper and you might like to as well.

Wrap a decent amount of plumbers tape around toiletry bottle necks to prevent dreaded leaks all through your bag from the pressurized cabin.

-Makeup. Adventure travel and makeup don’t always go hand in hand, but you might like to wear a little warpaint from time to time. A good tinted lip balm, eyeliner and mascara don’t take up a lot of room and are a good compromise if you usually wear makeup.

-While it’s not a toiletry, I keep a small spray bottle filled with dishwashing liquid in my girlie bag. Water it down a little so it’s thin enough to spray. It can be used for questionable restaurant cutlery, cleaning sunglasses, washing dishes when camping etc.

Airport security now requires that all liquids be carried in a clear plastic bag. If your toiletries are in something other, you will be required to empty your items into a (you guessed it) clear zip-loc bag for screening. It’s not glamorous but save yourself the hassle and pack your goodies in one before you leave.

Pack toiletries at the top of your bag for quick security screening and easy access to freshen up.

So that’s your toiletries sorted, The next item is shoes. I generally wear one pair of closed in boots/hiking shoes on the plane, and pack a pair of thongs/flip-flops/jandals. If you are using public bathrooms this is a must. You don’t want to catch some manky foot disease! Boots can be tied to the outside of your bag when wearing thongs if you are on the move. You may look like a hobo but hey, it beats carrying them!

Keep phone cables, USB sticks, earphones etc in a small non-see-through zippered material pouch, and sanitary items in another. These will fit into the gaps around your clothes. Your passport, bank cards, cash and travel details should always be carried on your body in the case of your bag being stolen or left behind, and to deter pickpockets.

Unless you absolutely need it, leave the laptop and ipad at home. A phone will take photos, hold copies of important documents, contact family/friends, give up-to-date exchange rates, maps and guidebooks. Leave the bulky hard copy of lonely planet at home. If you are travelling out of range and need one, a backpackers is a great place to find a cheap second hand copy and you can gift it to someone when you leave.

Don’t forget to take a sturdy waterproof plastic bag for dirty clothing.  Roll dirty clothes as you go to save space in your bag. An extra plastic bag almost always comes in handy and takes up no room also.

This article 8 Essential items to pack when adventure travelling! gives several ideas on how to make a clothes line, or you can take some strong cord with you. Paracord is ideal.

So you now have your rolled up clothes in waterproof bags, toiletries in another and incidentals in your zippered bags. You will be amazed at just how easy it is to fit everything into your carry on, and how simple it is to find things in a flash. Security will be a breeze as will getting around, and getting out of the airport and on with your adventure quicker! I hope you have found this guide useful and informative. As always we would love to hear any other ideas or questions that you may have in the comments below.

Until next time, happy travels!

Dust x

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Mum, Wife, Adventurer! Life is meant to be enjoyed not endured. I hope to inspire you to get out and live the best life you can, no mater how broke you think you may be. Join my family and I on our awesome adventures in Molly169, (our vintage bus & home) as we explore life on the road and share our latest travel hacks! :)

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